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Down’s plan under spotlight

Lessons are learned for Oakleafers after Mournemen's tatics exposed

By Declan Bogue

In public, Derry and Down players have kept their heads down this week after being drawn out of the pot to meet for the second time in the 2013 Championship.

This time, they will inch along the high-wire with no safety net. Whoever loses this is gone until the McKenna Cup next January.

For the neutral, this is the standout fixture in football this weekend. Nothing even comes close.

The actual occurrence of two teams meeting so soon in the backdoor happened in the first year of operation. In 2001, Fermanagh had beaten Donegal after a replay and lost the Ulster semi-final to Monaghan.

Come the first-ever round of the qualifiers, Donegal were waiting for Fermanagh, smarting from defeat almost a month earlier. They beat them at the scene of the crime — Brewster Park — by six points.

Thereafter, a rule was passed that teams who met in their provincial Championships, could not meet again until the later rounds of qualifiers. That was later rescinded at annual congress, several years ago.

There was some confusion regarding this after Monday's draw, especially since it also paired up Fermanagh and Cavan and privately, both Derry and Down players will dread their rematch.

In the first game in Celtic Park, commentators came away believing Down had yet to address their tactical naivety. However, they then revealed a game plan for Donegal that they had kept under dust covers for the Derry game. They have showed their hand now. Nothing about Down can surprise us.

Conor Deegan, team-mate of Down manager James McCartan for those two All-Ireland titles of the '90s, feels that travelling to Celtic Park will bring its own pressure.

“Statistically, we have seen that 60-odd% of games in the league are won at home,” he comments. “It would be higher than that for Championship. There would be a little bit of doubt I would have thought.

“I imagine that Derry will be a damn sight better prepared than before. They understand and they will have seen the likes of [Kevin] McKernan running from deep and they will try and stop that.”

He continued: “I think Down might have to tailor their game. Understand that if they are stopped, have a plan B and see what they can do to make it work.”

Apart from the psychology element, Down will have to manage to marry their style of defence employed against Donegal, to their traditional values of attacking football.

The numbers tell their own story. In the first round against Derry, Down ran up 2-15 from open play. In the semi-final, that was cut to 0-2.

“Down will have learned an awful lot about themselves in that game,” maintains Deegan. “There was an awful lot of what went on in the match that Derry will say, ‘Ok, we now know that Down can play that style of football. If they do that, this is what we are going to do'.”

In making that point, he is also careful to warn that no matter what plans Derry have laid for Down, they have still only had a matter of days to drill it into their players. The qualifiers are ruthless like that.

Deegan continues: “Down need to keep their shape, of having somebody up front who can be there to get the ball to. It's about keeping the balance right of keeping bodies up at the end of the pitch. If you want to work it out slowly that's fine, but once you are in the middle third you need to ping it into space for men to run on to. We didn't have any players up there so we were struggling to get the ball in.

“You must have the courage of your convictions and keep three men forward.

“You can line them up whatever way you want, with one at centre forward and the other two in a line to full-forward, line them whatever way you want. Leave the opposition thinking that they cannot go to sleep.”

In the opening stages against Sligo, Derry looked as if they were going to run riot. That never truly materialised but towards the end, they managed to get Eoin Bradley back on the field for gametime.

Afterwards, he took off his shirt to reveal a heavily-bandaged shoulder, having suffered a broken collar-bone in a recent club league match.

The subsequent photograph did not go unnoticed by Deegan, who wonders, “Are you sure it's the proper shoulder though?”

He then cites the example of former Clare hurler Seanie McMahon who famously played with a damaged shoulder in 1995, bandaging up the opposite shoulder so that it could withstand the inevitable ‘testing' it got from the opposition.

So many thoughts and considerations. Horrible for the players. Mouth-watering for the neutrals.

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